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'Infants see older children behaving well and they are influenced by it

The discipline line is clearly drawn, and it's rare for anybody to step over it'

Yesterday, three things happened at once - all of them relating to children's behaviour in school. First, one of my teachers told me about her friend, also a teacher, struggling with poor behaviour in her class. Two children in particular seem impossible, and spend much of their time telling her to fuck off. These aren't bolshy 15-year-olds; they are reception children, aged five. Then, in the morning post, a leaflet arrived advertising a "child behaviour toolbox" - more than 2,400 "strategies" for teachers, created by "highly trained child psychologists". Then a fax came through offering courses on behavioural listening systems such as "peer mediation" and something called "bubbletime". Yet, despite masses of such material, behaviour in schools is getting worse, not better. I think the reason is simple. We don't tell children off when they're naughty. We're encouraged to look for "reasons" instead.

Gemma text = When I arrived at Comber Grove, the behaviour at the top end of the school was pretty dire, so much so that for a good chunk of one day a week I taught the older children myself. During my first lesson with them, they banged their desk lids at me. I told them, loudly, how I felt about that and put on a display of anger that would have got me into Rada.

Inwardly, I knew that if I, the new headteacher, couldn't tame them, we'd had it. Fortunately, after a few weeks, they realised my lessons might even be worth listening to, and things improved. The rest of my energy was directed towards the bottom end of the school. There was no other priority.

After all, if we could get things right there, we wouldn't have problems as they became bigger and older.

Two factors, above all others, are the arbiters for good behaviour: stability and first-rate teaching. Nobody should be subjected to boredom, children least of all. My school is in a hugely difficult area, but it works well because my deputy and I have been here a long time, and my teachers are carefully picked. They are interesting, lively, dedicated people. They like each other, too, and the children notice that. Infants see older children behaving well, and they are influenced by it. The discipline line is clearly drawn, and it's rare for anybody to step over it. But if they do, I am available all the time for the staff, and I will deal with it thoroughly, whether nursery or Year 6.

Beyond our world, the nutty behavioural theories abound. An educational psychologist recently told me he favoured the "bleep tape" method in which a cassette recorder is placed beside the naughty child and a tape plays a bleep every 60 seconds so that the child can "assess whether he is on task". And, on a course recently, a behaviour adviser mentioned that if a child tells his teacher to fuck off, he's only working out his angst and the teacher shouldn't take it personally.

In 23 years my school has excluded nobody, and no child has ever sworn at a teacher. They wouldn't dream of it. Our only real failure was Ben, whose background was truly horrendous. He hated the world and everybody in it, and he really shouldn't have been with us. But we worked hard on him for the three years he was with us. We came very close to excluding him in Year 6, but he excluded himself instead.

Maybe, if we'd had him from reception, he'd have been OK. But I suppose one failure in 23 years isn't a record to be ashamed of.

Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary, London borough of Southwark.


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